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  1. #1
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    Default Canadians:: Kandahar , Women on a mission


    Forward Operating Base "Dehli"

    This summer Canadian and American troops in Afghanistan will be engaged in one of the largest offensives since the start of the war. Former U.S. marine and war artist Michael Fay, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, will be embedded with American troops this summer. He will be filing illustrations and reports from the front for the National Post throughout the summer.
    June 2, 2010: Headquarters 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Camp Delhi, Helmand Province

    Battalion supply run

    It’s such a simple thing. After fifty plus years you’d think I’d have a handle on it, but I don’t. I can’t tell my right hand from my left. I have to physically make the writing motion to cue myself. I can add another bit of brain malfunctioning to an ever growing list of idiosyncrasies. (Is the word Delhi, or is it Dehli?)
    While out here, I had occasion to meet an Indian-Buddhist-German documentary film maker, Ashwin Raman. Ash, as he asks to be called, started his documentary film career with the Marines in Vietnam, and now, days away from his 66th birthday, is marking his retirement with a final trip covering them in Afghanistan. I shared my sketches with him, and immediately he chided me for my misspelling of Delhi on a couple. I got a few right, but on most I didn’t. Even now I have to write it both ways before my brain picks the correct one.

    Lt.-Cpl. Jaime W. Argueta


    I arrived at Camp Delhi around midnight the night of June 1st on a CH-53 ride from Camp Bastion (or should I say the morning of June 2nd?…no matter). My hosts billeted me in a cave-like room with a smokehouse smell and giant cotton candy spiderwebs in all the corners. Black widow and brown recluse spiders are everywhere here. I got a broom first thing in the morning and reduced the webs to a tangle of fuzz on the bristle ends. Written in the soot-covered walls and ceilings are graffiti from both American and British units. Judging by the bullet marks, both inside and out, this place saw heavy fighting. The Brits left a memorial to a bunch of their mates.
    Delhi has a shower and I treat myself to one. These are Navy showers: get wet, turn off water, lather up, turn water back on, rinse. Anything more than a minute’s worth of water is a crime. The weak, lukewarm stream of water hardly seems worth the effort. Most Marines use the hygiene pit, a matted area with an open square with football-sized river rocks at the centre, bordered on two sides by makeshift wash stations. At one corner of the pit is a metal brace with a large, flare-gun-like spigot attached to an oversize hose running to a large rubber bladder containing non-potable water. Each wash station has a mirror and a circular hole cut in the waist-high plywood table that accommodates a stainless steel bowl. Each table has spots for six. The bowls are stacked up at the angle where the tables meet. You’re expected to rinse yours out when finished. Even in this arachnophobe’s worst nightmare of a place there is etiquette to be followed.

    The female engagement team

    At 0900, after breakfast and some sketching, I meet with the battalion’s adjutant and arrange to get manifested on a convoy down to their Weapons Company at FOB Gorgak. Weapons is the furthest-south unit in the hotly contested Helmand River Valley. The poppy harvest is over, and the Taliban is flush with cash. I’m eventually heading to the where the sidewalk ends, Patrol Base Karma. Beyond Karma there is nothing but bad guys. Just last week they lost two Marines to an IED along a canal path. In another incident just days before another guy, though he survived, lost all four limbs to a pressure plate bomb.
    I have until 1030, when the convoy brief will be held and my vehicle assignment made. I pack up my gear and stage it by a row of huge tan MTAVs and MRAPs. Other Marines waiting for a ride south mill about while convoy drivers and embark guys with a fork lift fill the back of trucks with supply laden palettes.
    A closer look at the vehicles reveals a riot of scrapes, dings, bent bumpers and an undercoating of rock hard mud splatter. They’re as worn and dirty as the Marines sitting against under-inflated tires in the shadows, and trying to catch forty winks in crew cabs stuffed with weapons, body armor, bottles of water and cases of MREs. This place is brutal on man and machine.

    Morning routine at the hygiene pit


    Off by the main ECP (entry control point) a patrol is forming up to leave the wire. This is a patrol party that virtually no Hollywood film has yet to capture. This is a FET (female engagement team) mission. Four of the Marines adjusting their gear and weapons are female.
    There’s a minor statistic that doesn’t get a whole lot of play in the coverage of Afghanistan. In fact, based on my own observations, I would classify this bit of information as little more than a rumor. But the Marine Corps, being what it is, has decided to take this data and run with it. This is the unsubstantiated claim I’m referring to: half the population of Afghanistan is women. The mission of the FET Marines is to reach out to them. Those of us here can tell you there’s a better chance of encountering a Yeti than an Afghan woman. Be that as it may, the Marines have organized and deployed groups of female jarheads to actively meet with and engage them in the political process.
    Sergeant Melissa Hernandez is an MP (military police) by trade. Today, she commands a FET. She’s as geared up as any Marine I’ve ever seen, along with a team of two other female Marines and a female Navy corpsman. They’re on their way outside the wire to meet with local women. In my humble opinion these women are doing more than the entire National Organization of Women put together.

    Lt.-Cpl. John Stroman






    Rocket attack


    Sgt. Adam Vandervoort on watch at PB Karma.


    This summer Canadian and American troops in Afghanistan will be engaged in one of the largest offensives since the start of the war. Former U.S. marine and war artist Michael Fay, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, will be embedded with American troops this summer. He will be filing illustrations and reports from the front for the National Post throughout the summer.
    June 6, 2010: Patrol Base Karma, Weapons Platoon, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Helmand Valley
    They must have mis-spelled my name, the Taliban that is. It’s a common mistake. Even the best meaning of folks add an “e” to the end-Faye rather than the correct Fay. Sometimes, being an overeducated stooge, I politely remind them that the vowels are a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y; placing an e after the y isn’t necessary for the correct pronunciation of Fay. I’m not generally known for being efficient, but when it comes to my last name-three letters does quite nicely thank you.

    At 1630 today a Taliban 107mm ChiCom (Chinese Communist) rocket plowed through the back compound wall and exploded in a rear room of PB Karma (the squad normally living there was out at another observation post). This was our second attack of the day. It had my name on it, sort of. It missed me one meter to the left. I was sitting on the cot closest to the rear hatch in the back hallway right next to the room it sliced into. Maybe I should re-think making a fuss over minor mis-spellings.

    Lt. Cpl. Ben Vickery. Click for a full-size image.



    Today started out like any other. I’ve been in Afghanistan about a week now and the morning routine is pretty much set. Get up around 0530 (it starts getting light about 0500), shake out boots (scorpions), and head to the piss tubes. Return to cot and grab worn green towel and toiletry kit (my fiancée Janis gave it to me for Christmas-it’s L.L. Bean and has a monogram of my initials) and head over to the hygiene pit (pick up a couple bottles of water on the way). Wash essential body parts-private bits and hair. If it’s the every other day, I shave. Brush teeth and floss. Take Prozac, Doxy and blood pressure medicine. Eat an MRE. If nature calls extra loud, get a wag bag and retire to the ad hoc toilet facility in the compound’s former stable.
    This is my first full day at Patrol Base Karma so I start by exploring. The night before we had humped the five clicks from FOB Gorgak down to Weapons Company’s furthest south outpost, Karma. Beyond Karma there are only Taliban until the Pakistan border. The walk down Route Giants last evening was lovely. The fields and earthen compounds, framed by lines of mulberry trees, glowed in the sunset. The sequins on the little girls’ dresses and boys’ distinctive Kandahri caps flashed at us from the eastern bank of the deep irrigation canal we strolled along. Down in the canal lay deep beds of reeds filled with the bird sounds. But, by the time we arrived at the outpost the gloam was thick and night was mere minutes away. I couldn’t get a good look at the place. These patrol bases are blacked out after sunset.
    Weapons Company believes PB Karma was a hospital of sorts. When they took possession of the main building they found one of the four rooms splattered with blood and reeking of decay. They call that the death house. Despite a thorough scrubbing the sweet nauseous odor of death still seeps from its walls. The building itself is a one-story square with a cruciform layout. The structure is somewhat unusual for this area; it is very symmetrical and made of poured concrete. In fact, it sits on a dais of concrete about three feet high. There are sets of steps leading up to the platform, which forms a wide porch all way around, at all four cardinal directions. Each set of steps directs you through a door way. At the nexus where the two broad hall ways meet is a card table, where a game of hearts, spades, Texas hold ‘em or chess is usually in session 24/7. Two of the rooms are living quarters for Marines, one is the COC (command operations center) and the third (the death room) is the Medical Aid Station. The hallways are lined with sleeping cots and big improvised bins holding hundreds of water bottles. The walls are covered with gear and flak jackets hanging on something the Marines call Jesus nails-they’re big. The flight of stairs leading to the roof has the loopy symmetry one comes to expect in Afghanistan. Each step has its own logic and you need to respect it with each trip up and down them.
    On the roof are sandbagged fighting positions with fifty caliber machine guns and grenade launchers, and an assortment of communication equipment and antennas. A little cupola caps the stairs and on top of that is Sable missile launcher perched in its own mini-fortress of green sandbags. It’s hot on the exposed roof, but surprisingly cool in the rooms and halls below.
    The whole compound is surrounded by a two story earthen wall with vehicle access through an ornate blue metal gate. The area directly to the front is lined with MTAVs and MRAPs, dusty and mud caked behemoths designed to withstand IED blasts. Around the compound wall are various stations for washing uniforms, preparing and eating food, relieving oneself, sleeping and working out. The dog handlers, both trackers and bomb sniffers, have shaded lean-tos set up in two of the corners for themselves and their dogs.
    After my tour I attached myself to a working party heading for a tree line just beyond the wire. Mulberry trees line virtually every major irrigation canal and the ones a hundred meters west of Karma block a good view of a village compound the Marines regularly take small arms and RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fire from. The detail was lead by Staff Sergeant Worley. His team, with little more than a small hack saw, a machete and a couple axes commenced to top off a couple stubborn mulberries. The work was arduous, hot and energy sucking. Marines alternated between swinging less than sharp axes at trunks, clambering up to exposed positions with the hack saw and machete to trim branches, and standing watch in the shade. That is
    until an RPG swooshed in and detonated fifty meters away.
    A couple of Worley’s Marines on our right saw the “poof” and the rocket trail and returned fire to the point of origin. We quickly retrograded back to the patrol base. Up on the roof the sniper teams were scanning the
    seemingly abandoned village for signs of movement, or even another RPG launch. No joy. The hot quiet of the day settled back around us. The Scan Eagle drone buzzed overhead and the swallows cart wheeled through the air and into their mulberry rookeries completely oblivious to our presence.
    After monitoring the snipers and looking through a set of binoculars myself for an hour, hoping to get a glimpse of anything out of the ordinary, I retired back to the relative cool interior of the building. I seated myself on an available cot and picked up a well-worn copy of a book detailing the experiences of Marine snipers in Iraq. A group of guys settled into a game of hearts at the central card table and off to one side two more started a chess match.
    A very distant wham was followed almost instantaneously by an ear splitting concussive blast, a shower of dirt and shrapnel, and a thick billowing cloud of orange dust rolling down the hallway. I moved faster than I’ve ever moved before down the hallway away from the very close point of impact. As I ran crouching over I instinctively started running my hands over my body and down my legs. Shouts of “anyone hurt, anyone hurt” echoed off the still ringing walls and personnel dashed to the rear of the building expecting to find wounded. A gaping hole, about six feet across, became visible through the clearing dust. It was high and almost direct center on the rear wall. My little sleeping area and gear, on the dais, was covered in debris. The cammie netting that had covered us and the weight lifting area was down and a jagged hole in the building’s back wall showed where the round had breached the rear room. The field beyond the wall was on fire and throwing up sheets of black smoke.
    Miraculously no one was severely injured. LCpl Echelson, who had been sitting on the cot directly in front of me, had some minor bleeding low on one leg, but that was it. I was glad to see Worley. Moments before the
    impact he and I had exchanged a greeting as he headed to the weights to exercise. I thought for sure he had been right there. Worley, who took a moment to go around the side of the building to grab a bottle of water, was now seriously thinking about taking up religion.
    At first the Marines were saying it was an RPG, but one of the EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) guys collected up a bunch of parts and discovered it was a Chinese made 107mm rocket. I took a still life photo of the bits Sergeant Mesa had painstaking sifted from the chaos in the shattered back room. Thank God no one had been inside.
    According to the Marines, the Taliban had just had a pretty good poppy harvest and were flush with cash. The appearance of ChiCom rockets soon followed. Apparently they had a couple new toys to play with.





    A soldier looks on as a medevac helicopter arrives.

    This summer Canadian and American troops in Afghanistan will be engaged in one of the largest offensives since the start of the war. Former U.S. marine and war artist Michael Fay, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, will be embedded with American troops this summer. He will be filing illustrations and reports from the front for the National Post throughout the summer.
    June 7, 2010: Patrol Base Karma, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment
    It’s a dry heat. Repeat often. Staff Sergeant Worley, the Patrol Base Karma QRF (quick reaction force) leader, doesn’t want to hear the actual temperature. When Sergeant Morse, one of his team leaders, looks up from his Dick Tracy wrist GPS and announces “116 degrees” he gets back a scowl and a terse reminder to never mention the temperature. Worley, a North Carolinian, likes to pretend the temperature is always 94 degrees. Always.
    We’ve been sitting out in the unforgiving Afghan sun over six hours. At 0805 the sounds of a hotly contested firefight, small arms fire and grenade blasts, erupted 700 meters off to the west of PB Karma. Worley’s QRF of a dozen Marines and an equal number of Afghan National Army troops was quickly marshaled and to provide a blocking force on the eastern flank of a gun battle raging between a platoon from Lima Company and a Taliban cell.


    Lt. Cpl. King acts as a sniper during a firefight. Click for a full-size image.


    The engaged platoon sent up a green flare to identify their position, slightly forward to our right and screened by low mud compounds. Shortly afterwards a red flare appeared over the besieged platoon’s position, one of
    the Lima Marines had been shot, a sucking chest wound, and Worley’s first task was to secure an LZ for a medevac helicopter. The golden hour was ticking down for the stricken Marine being tended somewhere to our right in a tree line on the far side of a large irrigation canal paralleling a major road called Route Cowboys.
    On this morning the Marines of Lima had been providing a western security force for an element of US Army and Marine combat engineers’ doing IED clearing south along Route Cowboys, the central artery running through the heart of the Helmand River Valley. A parallel road on the valley’s eastern flank, Route Giants, had been cleared of IEDs down to PB Karma months before. It was now time to extend Marine presence to the intersection of Giants, Cowboys and a third road converging from the west, Tarheels. This strategic junction, only 300 meters southwest of Karma, was until now in Taliban hands. Daily sniper shots, rocket propelled grenades and 107mm rockets reminded the garrison at Karma that the enemy wasn’t going to retreat from this key intersection without a major fight. The few kilometers long stretch being cleared harbored dozens of IEDs.
    This operation, Zokar Khan, had already taken the lives of three Marines. The day before a one of the large MRAP mine-resistant vehicles had lost its footing on the earthen road and tumbled into one of the deep canals along Route Cowboys. Three Marines and a military working dog made it out of the quickly submerging vehicle, but three did not. Besides the heat, everyone was feeling the loss. Given their druthers, Marines would rather die in a firefight than in an accident.
    We arrived at our position in the crisp stubble of freshly shorn wheat after jog through fields of chest high dried poppy stalks, and across mud slickened irrigation ditches. Worley had quickly deployed his Marines and
    Afghan National Army troops in a broad arc anchored along a ditch running east to west the length of a sprawling village compound of sun baked walls and homes. Contact with the Taliban, hotly anticipated by the QRF, failed to materialize. The sound of gunfire off to our right diminished with the appearance of Cobra gunships.
    A sortie of two U.S. Army Blackhawk medevac helicopters flared into a field 200 meters away in a great cloud of dust. Just as quickly they lifted off and were gone, leaving only dry hot silence and flights of dark blue
    swallows darting everywhere.
    Until further notice Worley’s QRF was to hold its position. With the circling threat of Cobras overhead the Taliban melted back south beneath the thick cover of mulberry tree lines. The Lima Marines, with a wide canal
    lying between them and the enemy position, moved a couple hundred meters north, closer to the road clearing detail under their protection. The Taliban would be back as soon as the Cobras were off station.
    Now, at roughly 1400, the PB Karma QRF found itself proned out in a shadowless expanse of Afghan fields running low on water and information. Worley’s grizzled and sunburned cheek was pressed to his radio handset asking for a resupply of water and chow. Over and over his voice could be heard repeating his call sign, Crusher Six, as he responded to requests from Karma for reports of movement to our southwest. Small dust devils danced through the fields as the Marines stared through ACOG sights at the mute face of the mud village compound bordering Route Cowboys. The day had ground to a silent sweltering halt. Somewhere in the air above, among the darting swallows, came the buzz of a Scan Eagle surveillance drone circling slowly over the contested ground.
    Word was passed down.

    The wounded Lima Company Marine didn’t made it. R.I.P.
    Last edited by ianstone; 10-10-2010 at 01:59 PM.
    Stay low and move slow !

 

 

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